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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Trial and Error Archives
Chapter 21

Family Planning

Khyrisse drew the Tobrinese blinds on one of the bedroom windows. "Ebreth?" she said over her shoulder, a little shyly.

"Hmm?" he said, and looked up from his book.

"There's... no reason we can't talk about baby names, you know." She closed the other window.

"I'd assumed Schneider was going to want input," Ebreth said quietly, not looking at her.

"Okay," said Khyrisse, after a beat, "one, he's never asked for that; two, I wouldn't agree to it if he did; and three, there is nothing coming out of my womb named Moon Unit Starshadow or whatever bizarre thing he would probably come up with." Ebreth chuckled despite himself, and Khyrisse smiled. "I've... been thinking of naming her after my mother," she confessed, tracing an embarrassed little circle on the floor with her satin slipper.

"Sallie?" Ebreth said. "Or Laelissa?"

"I like Laelissa better."

"So do I," said Ebreth.

She gave him an impish grin. "If you have any other ideas... we could always make some more."

He hesitated, and Khyrisse felt a single cold prickle shoot suddenly down her spine. "Well," said Ebreth, "I don't know, Khyrisse--maybe we should wait and see how we do with this one, first."

She felt unexpectedly like she'd been punched in the kidney, but maintained her composure enough for a wobbly smile and a muted "Fair enough," putting her hand on the dresser to steady herself. Ebreth just looked confused. "I want this one," he clarified. Khyrisse was surprised at how little it consoled her. "I just, I have no idea if I'm going to be even vaguely competent at this or not. It's scary enough planning one child in advance, you know what I'm saying?"

She nodded some more, unsteadily. "Of course," she whispered. "That's--fair."

"I'm not saying no," he tried again, taking her shoulder. She let him but looked away. "I just don't want to make promises when I don't know how it's going to go... Honey, look, is a big family really that important to you?"

"It's not that," she said in a small voice.

"Well, what is it then?"

Khyrisse bit her lip.

"Please?"

"I want one of yours," she said rapidly. "And if this one isn't because of that stupid oyster totem, I don't, I can't--I don't want this to be my only chance, Ebreth!" She turned on him painfully, intending to say more, and froze in her tracks at the look on his face. It occurred to her then, for the first time, that she'd never even told him she hoped the child was his. "I," she started, and had no idea where to take it. Ebreth slipped to his knees and held her hard around the legs, and she fumbled her hands across his face. "Ebreth," she said, "Ebreth, I'm sorry."

"I didn't know," he choked out, shaking. Khyrisse hadn't seen him lose it like this since Jack died, unless you counted dreams of Hell, which she didn't. "I didn't know you--I thought it was some damnfool thing everyone but me was too postmodern to care about. YES, I want you to have my baby. God, yes."

"I'm so sorry," she whispered, smoothing his face with her hands. "I didn't think it needed to be said. Of course I care. Did you think it doesn't matter to me--oh, Ebreth."

It was a long time before he let go of her that night.

Poison in the Well

"You sure about this?"

"I'm sure."

Nick slowly handed the packet of Sugar Cane over. "Are they going to trace this to us?" he said.

"There's no police force here," said Carson Delaney. He took a slim vial out of his jacket and stood looking at it in the dim light for what felt like a long time. "Randall doesn't believe in laws."

"Well," said Nick. "I guess what we're doing's no worse than what the pushers are."

"Yeah," said Carson. He uncorked the vial slowly, watched the strychnine flutter down across the chunky yellow powder like part of some kind of dream sequence. "You can get this stuff back to the dealer without him knowing?"

"I can do that," Nick said. "Trust me there."

"Then do it," Carson said quietly. "And God save our souls."

Talk to Me

"Khyrisse," he said quietly, without turning to look at her as she came down the stairs, "I--think we need to talk."

The archmage's heart skipped about three beats and stuttered to catch back up. Those were foreboding words under the best of circumstances, and not ones she'd heard out of Ebreth before. Her own irrational secret fear of their relationship falling apart somehow wasn't helping her respiration any. "What's wrong?" she said, in a thin voice.

"Nothing is," he said, "nothing's wrong, it's nothing like that. It's just... I think we need to be talking more, Khyrisse, about things we haven't been."

She sat down slowly on the big white chair at the other end of the coffee table from him. "I'm listening," she said.

"It's not easy for me," he said softly, looking into his coffee, "to talk about some things. But I realized, after last night... here you had something I desperately needed to hear and you never said it because I never told you I needed to hear it."

Khyrisse winced, and put her hand over her face. "I'm sorry," she said. "I wish I was more intuitive about things like this, but I'm just not."

"Aaah, if I wanted a mind-reader, I'd go to Diaria," Ebreth dismissed it, waving his hand. "What I need to be doing is telling you." He looked out the bay window. "Even when I'd rather not," he said. "It's not fair. You tell me what you need."

"It's not a question of fair, Ebreth," she said gently. "People... cope with things differently. Grendel knows you're better-adjusted than I am in certain ways. I don't want you to feel pressured into talking about anything before you're ready."

"I do." He looked at her for a long moment. "Khyrisse," he said, "I'm serious about this. This marriage I mean. I don't go into things planning for failure. And life's not going to get any easier for us any time soon. If telling you things I wish I didn't have to is going to give us a better chance at getting through them..." Ebreth drank coffee. "Then that's what I'm going to do."

Khyrisse was a bit overcome by that despite herself, and it took a few seconds to compose herself enough to respond. "If you tell me what would help you, s'parde-vois," she said, "I promise, I'll do anything in my power. It's just that I don't always know... I don't know what I should be reassuring you about and what you just never want to hear about again. If I knew what you needed from me, I swear, I'd do it."

"Would you tell me things that weren't true?" he said quietly.

Khyrisse understood that so viscerally she forced herself to stop her knee-jerk answer and give it the thought it deserved. "I won't lie to you," she finally said. "I owe you that. ...But Ebreth, I shouldn't have to. Do you have any idea how highly I think of you? I can't imagine an anxiety you could have that the truth wouldn't be enough to answer it."

He nodded slowly. "You've just got to understand how hard this is," he whispered, not looking at her. "It's bad enough being so needy. Having to say it aloud is death on wheels. I don't know if you even appreciate--you could destroy me, you know. You're still afraid of me, every once in a while, but the truth is I couldn't do worse than what Tremontagne did, and you survived that. You could destroy me. There would be nothing left." Ebreth closed his hand. "I don't know how else to say this," he said, very softly. "Khyrisse, I'm putting my soul in your hands here. Please... be better to it than it deserves."

Outside the bay window, the midsummer sun crept slowly above the Shadow Mountains.

Continuing The Skneeder Reconciliation Tour 814

"Hidy ho," mumbled Schneider, moving out of Rani's way without meeting her eyes as she passed him on the New Trade sidewalk.

"It ain't catching, Chuckles," Rani sighed, kicking a pebble into the street and down the gutter.

"Beg pardon?"

"Anal-retentiveness," said Rani. She looked preoccupied by something, but even part of her attention was sharp enough to be biting. "You don't catch it by standing near someone with twelve fingers."

"What?" Schneider was appalled. She thinks I'm a racist? How do I keep giving everyone these awful impressions of me? "No, no, it's not like that... I've got nothing against Diarians, honest. The, uh, only one I really know is Shilree, and okay, you've got her pegged on the tight ass thing, but she's basically cool. Saved the Tour from some bad mojo coupla times, helped stop Bane. I'm not anti-Diarian, honest to Pepsi."

"You're shitting me," said Rani. "What are you, then, scared of the psionics?"

"No..."

"By which you mean ‘Yes'?"

"Uh, well, yes," Schneider said meekly.

"You moron, you can shoot cones of cold out of your hands. I max out at about a d4 of damage. You'd be better served with an irrational fear of math."

"That's why it's called an irrational fear."

Rani snorted. "Well, this ain't ‘Scanners,' kid. I'm the least dangerous member of the damn group, except maybe the rat. Come to think of it, rats carry diseases. Have you had your shots?"

"Hey, don't be so down on yourself," Schneider protested faintly. "I happen to know the Boss-Lady thinks very highly of you... and your, uh, talents have come in really handy a couple of times."

"No shit," said Rani. "I'm the best PI in Rimbor City. I didn't say I was useless, I said I was fucking defenseless in a fight." She scuffed the back of her heel irregularly along the sidewalk. "Which I am, so I usually stay out of them. Trust me, if I could blow shit up, I'd make your girl friend look like a pacifist."

"She's, uh, not my girlfriend," mumbled Schneider.

"You're literal for a comedian."

Schneider decided against getting into that whole magilla. "So, uh, what in Paninaro's name made you think I didn't like you because you're half-Diarian?"

"It's a pretty good working theory in most cases," shrugged Rani. "Diarians hate everyone else, and everyone else hates them. That leaves, uh, Zaptiocalionaziokoosbiliarth for me to be popular on? Toss in Diari ideas about the Master Race and kiljhac homophobia, and I'm happier in Rimbor, where most people are willing to hate you for your own merits."

Schneider blinked a couple times. You're gay? What he said, though, was "Master Race?"

"The kiljhac call it ‘inbreeding'," she said helpfully. "Miscegenation's a sin back east, and failing to get aborted on schedule's a felony. I've been a fugitive from justice since they cut my umbilical cord."

"Geez Louise," said Schneider.

"Eh," said Rani. "Everyone's got some kinda tearjerker in their backstory. You?"

"Lost it during the Madness and killed 56 people in a mind-controlled rage."

"Gotcha," said Rani. "Well, I couldn't mind-control a fly to get off my ass, so you can put your energy into being afraid of someone scarier. Like, Princess Thalia, maybe."

"Under advisement."

Stormfront

"Hey, barbarian boy!"

"Frontier monkey!"

Skitch was getting used to the taunts of the other boarding-school kids, but he didn't like it any better than he did the day he arrived. To explain his poor Diari, he and Lorrini had told everyone he was from the Diari perimeter, and though it was better than all of them knowing he'd once been a kiljhac, it still left him the butt of the boarding-school jeers, and Skitch was really starting to hate it. At first, he'd assumed their stupid questions about farm animals and did they have bathtubs in the Perimeter were friendly attempts to break the ice. It had since become quite clear they were not.

Skitch put his head down and walked the gauntlet of his laughing schoolmates. Embarrassingly, the voices of all the other boys his age had already deepened. Diarians matured faster than kiljhac, especially those with elven blood, and Skitch hadn't caught up yet. They teased him about this, too, talking to him in falsetto whenever they could get away with it. Skitch wished he'd been born Diari, but as it was, he just had to soldier through.

"Hey, goatherd! I'm talking to you!" The worst of the bunch, a tall blond boy named Anal, stepped into Skitch's path, bumping him backward to a chorus of laughs. Skitch desperately wanted to tell the big jerk what his name meant in Dalen, but he didn't dare call any more attention to his proficiency with that language. "Get out of my way, Anal," he said instead. "We're going to be late for class."

"Get out of my way, Anal," mimicked Anal, aping both Skitch's higher-pitched voice and not-entirely-proficient Low Diari. "Who taught you to talk, dayali, one of the goats?"

Skitch didn't know what dayali meant, and he didn't care to. The most frustrating thing about the whole situation was that Skitch, a child of the streets for as long as he could remember, could think of several good comeback lines, and just couldn't manage to fit any of them into a second language. "Dayali yourself," he muttered. "Knock it off, Anal." The bigger boy shoved him back into the locker. Skitch was really starting to get mad. "I said knock it off!"

"Kiljhac-lover," sneered Anal.

This was another common taunt at Irla, and Skitch hated it at several levels: because it was true, because it wasn't true, because he knew damn well that befriending kiljhac was perfectly honorable Diarian behavior, and, most of all, because he hadn't figured out a good answer. This time, though, Anal had used a different word for ‘lover,' one with more connotations. And Skitch finally came up with an answer.

He'd learned a lot of things, observing the Rat Pack. His magic tutelage hadn't really gone that well, but you could learn a lot just by watching people who were good at something. He'd figured out the trick of squatting comfortably for long periods of time by watching Alphred do it, flat-footed. From Kit he'd learned how to sneak pretty well; from Vas, how to lead a target. From Ebreth, he'd learned the trick of striking without warning, and Anal was on the ground before he registered the smaller boy's fist coming.

"If anyone else wants to suggest disgusting things about me and the kiljhac," Skitch yelled, "come and do it now!"

There was silence in the hall. Then the bell rang, and the fear of the starchy-faced Diarian professors punishing their tardiness sent everyone in a scrabbling disarray, the confrontation of the hour forgotten. Skitch didn't have a handkerchief. He wiped Anal's blood off his hand onto the inside lining of his jacket.

No one got in his way as he left the building after math class ended.

"Hey, Skitch!" yelled a voice, as he turned across the quad. Skitch looked over his shoulder. It was another boy from his class, a stocky kid named Sherren. There was another boy with him Skitch didn't recognize, maybe a little older than they were. He was a lean, wiry guy with flinty eyes and something in his bearing that reminded him oddly of Kingfisher. "Hold up," said Sherren. "we want to talk to you."

Skitch tensed inside, but tried to keep his cool on the outside. "What's up?" he said.

"I'm Lihan," the older boy introduced. "I'm a junior. I saw what happened with Anal."

"Yeah?" said Skitch.

"Yeah," he said. "Cool way you use your knuckles, man. You learn that in the Perimeter?"

"Yeah," said Skitch.

"You're tough for a little guy," said Lihan.

"Yeah, no shit," said Sherren. "Rekzyr, did you see the look on Anal's face?" He chuckled meanly. Skitch couldn't feel too sorry for a kid who was such an unremitting bully, though, so he laughed back.

"You let him off too easy," said Lihan. "After what he said about you, I mean."

"I gave him the message," Skitch said, with exaggerated carelessness. "He won't mess with me again."

"Not if he knows what's good for him." Lihan was looking carefully at Skitch. "I like you, Skitch," he said from out of nowhere. Skitch didn't know quite what to say to that. He fervently hoped this wasn't a pass, because he didn't even know how to extricate himself from that in his first language. "You're not like all the other mezhinae around here. Give me a barbarian with balls over a civilized creampuff any day of the week. Me and Sherren--" He inclined his head at Skitch's schoolmate. "--couple of other kids, we've got a little fraternity of sorts going here. You ever run with a pack before, Skitch?"

"Sure I have," said Skitch. "In the, uh, Perimeter, I mean. We called ourselves the Rat Pack."

"That's cool," said Lihan. "That's real cool." He made a diagonal salute across his face. "Well, we call ourselves the Edge. And if you want to be one of us..." He looked the smaller boy over with his cold, hard eyes. "Well, I think you have what it takes."

"I know I do," said Skitch confidently.

"Good man. Be at the Tenjhic at eleven tonight." Lihan turned and walked on, and Skitch realized what it was about him that reminded him of Kingfisher.

He didn't look to either side as he walked.

Feminists Under Severe Stress, New Trade Chapter

"Rani!" said Khyrisse, as the psychometrist walked into the lobby of the Rat Trap. "There you are! I--I've been looking for you--"

"If I told you where I'd been, you'd think I'd been smoking Cane." Rani walked over to the memo from Pluvious Sturoster and yanked it off the wall, crumpling it in her gloved hand and dropping it into the trash. "Sorry about the kid. Saint A, I think pissing somebody off enough that they went to fuckin' Diaria is a first even for me."

Khyrisse felt a twinge of pain and anger, but not a burning stab of it, which she guessed was an improvement. "I doubt that was the only impetus involved," she said quietly. "No, that wasn't what I wanted to talk to you about. I--" She glanced back and forth quickly, making sure they were alone. "I wanted to ask you--would it be possible for you to do a, paternity test, on the baby?"

Rani's entire body stiffened so visibly that Khyrisse suddenly had the dizzy realization of what she herself must look like under extreme stress. "I could," the detective said, too shortly, "but I won't."

Khyrisse backpedaled. "I'm not going to have an abortion or anything, Rani! This is my baby no matter what, I just... I just thought it might be easier if I... if we... knew in advance."

"I'm sorry," Rani said flatly. "I can't do it, Khyrisse. I'll stick my hand into a pile of maggots if you want, but a fetal scan is just out of the question." Khyrisse closed her eyes. "I don't ask you to mess around with Hell," she pointed out.

Khyrisse sighed. "I--understand," she said, tiredly. "I've been resisting trying to find a way to divine this for months, Rani. I don't want to resent her. I just..." She put her fingers in her hair. "I thought maybe, if it was Ebreth's, and we knew that now... maybe he could, at least enjoy the rest of this," she said in a small voice. "And even if it's not, if we knew in advance... then at least it wouldn't ruin her birthday, finding out."

"I'm sorry," Rani said, more gently. "We all have our wounds. This is mine." She jammed her thumbs through the belt loops of her denims. "It's one of mine," Rani said. "I'm facing some of the others. That one, I'm not ready for yet."

"I hear that," Khyrisse sighed.

"Right," said Rani. "So you go and, you know, plan your wedding, I'm going back to Rimbor, see if I can find some things I lost somewhere down the line. The rest of this stuff, you know, let's just let it lie where it's at till we've got our legs back. It'll keep till then." She sighed, and then bonked her gloved knuckles into Khyrisse's. "Don't put bastards in the carburetor," she said. "You take care of yourself."

"You too, Rani," Khyrisse said, surprised at the softness in her own voice.

The One With The Unintentional Sexual Harassment

"Hi, Aithne," Jack said. "I'm sorry I haven't, uh, been to see you since I got back... I've been, uh, thinking about some things."

Aithne bit her lip. She herself had been hiding in her room since then. Aithne didn't want to run into Vas again. The elf had not come looking for her, mercifully, but she had been afraid to leave her little apartment, for fear of catching his attention again. He seemed to be very promiscuous. Maybe if she stayed out of his way, he would entertain himself with other girls. "Hi," she said to Jack. "I hope you had fun trip."

"Oh, I, uh, did... but I've been, um, thinking, about keeping secrets... and about how I really, uh, shouldn't be. I mean, I really think it's time to just put some things out into the open." He cleared his throat self-consciously. "So I've, uh, decided there's something I really need to, uh, tell you about myself, before we go on any more, uh, dates. Or anything. I mean, assuming you wanted to."

"I think there is something I must tell you first, Jack." Aithne twisted one of her slim hands unhappily in the other, looking down. "Maybe you will not want to trust me your secret after I tell you."

"Oh, it couldn't be that bad," assured Jack.

"Two bads," she said, her shoulders high and tight. "I sex with Vas," she finally blurted out. Jack would never want her now, but it would have been dishonorable not to tell him. "He make me," she said. "I am sorry, Jack. I like you better, but he is my boss and I can not disobey." It wasn't Vas' fault, really; it was his right as a lord, but it brought tears to her eyes anyway. "And I lost your chicken. I look all over and I even summon a demon to look for her but I can not find. I think, I am very bad friend this week." Aithne didn't dare to look up. "I am sorry."

Maybe A Little Of The Hemingway Stuck After All

"Jack, what's up?" said Ebreth, putting down his cards as the mathematician stormed into the Rat Trap saloon. The look on his face was one Ebreth hadn't seen before, and that worried him a little.

Jack Paris didn't answer. He blew right past Ebreth to Vastarin and punched the startled elf square in the jaw, sending him crashing back into the poker table in a spray of chips and drinks.

Ebreth cringed automatically. Jack had balled his fist around his thumb, and it was probably broken. He reacted before any of the other Rat Packers could and got Jack by the arms, both holding him back from any continuing violence against Vas and leaving no question in anyone's mind where his own solidarity was if things escalated. What the Hell could have Jack Paris throwing punches?

"Vas," Khyrisse sighed, "what did you do now?"

"Moi?" cried Vas, looking put-upon. "Milady, I am not the one who waltzed in here and hit--"

"You forced Aithne into having sex with you!" Jack shouted.

There was total silence in the Rat Trap. Ebreth loosened his grip on Jack's arms a little, looked across at Vas. All the hapless befuddlement had disappeared from the elf's face with drastic abruptness. "You had best take that serious and most untrue allegation back immediately," Vas said quietly and coldly, standing from the broken card table. Val and Khyrisse exchanged horrified looks, and then looked together at Jack. "This one recommends a... reasoned and objective discussion of the situation," Amatsu tried weakly.

Jack paid no attention. "She's upstairs crying right now," he said, "because she's been trying to get you to leave her alone for weeks now and you wouldn't stop pushing her! You knew she considered herself your subordinate, Vas, she's said so in front of you thirty-seven times that I've been there to count it. How could you take advantage of that?"

"Aithne said that?" Vas had paled at that idea, but he quickly shook it off. "You must have misunderstood somehow," he said. "It was entirely consensual, Jack, I assure you, and after the long association we've shared--" He looked around the room in angry betrayal. "--I cannot but resent that any of you would think otherwise!"

Ebreth just kind of looked at Vas. "You... slept with Jack's girlfriend?" he said.

"She's not really his girlfriend," said Vas. Jack, simultaneously, shouted "That's not the point!"

"Check, please," mumbled Rani, her face obscured in the falling sheafs of her silver hair.

"It was she who made the first move, Jack," Vas said sharply.

"Because she thought you ordered her to!"

"I did nothing of the sort!"

"She's not from here!" shouted Jack, flinging his arms out. "She doesn't even speak the language, Vas! She's from three thousand years ago, she's lost, she's frightened, she doesn't understand Dalen, she doesn't understand our culture, and she thinks she has to do anything you tell her to! What could possibly have made you think you could ask her for sex without exploiting her situation?"

Vas sat down.

"Okay," said Ebreth, after a beat. "All right, Jack. Okay. We'll get to the bottom of this. You go to her." He released the mathematician, who gave Vas one long, pained look back before shuffling off in the direction of the stairwell, cradling his hand. Ebreth sighed and poured himself a generous drink. "Val, Vas," Khyrisse said quietly, "we meet in my office in one hour." Valende nodded, putting her hand softly on her brother's. "Val, I'll need a tongues spell ready. And as for the rest of you... I'd appreciate it if this went no further until I've determined exactly what the flark is going on here."

"If what went no further?" smiled Orlen.

"She jumped me," Vas said to no one.

"I, uh, better get going," mumbled Rani. "My, uh, coach leaves at four."

"Let me know if you need anything," said Flicker.

The Rat Trap emptied in awkward silence.

Guy Talk

"For Pete's sake, Vas, the man's got two months to live and you fuck his girl?"

"Girls aren't pieces of furniture, Ebreth," Vas said impatiently, "you can't just give somebody one and expect her to stay put. I know our good Jack is a little confused on this point, but the lady in question said yes."

"Did you even have to ask?"

"As well to ask if I must breathe," said Vas, with a charmingly apologetic unapologetic smile. Ebreth muttered under his breath and headed for the door. "Ebreth." The big pirate turned his head. "I put no pressure on her," he said. "Ever. I would never do a thing like that."

"It's not like you," said Ebreth. "There must be some misunderstanding." He paused. "But you never should have tried, Vas. Hundreds of thousands of women on this world and you have to take Jack's?" Ebreth shook his head. "Goddamn," he said, and closed the door.

Kaddish

Solly was closing up shop when Carson got there. "Hey, Solly," said Carson with a frown, tucking his paper under his arm. "You look like hell. Something wrong?"

"It's Jake," the restauranter said dully. "They found him this morning, he and some friends... they'd been smoking Cane. I didn't even know he was taking that stuff." Carson felt like all the air had suddenly been squeezed out of his lungs. He tried to say something, but nothing came out. "Maybe I should have known," said Solly. "Since his mother died, Lord knows I've been doing the best I can... just haven't been able to keep up with him. I should have been watching him closer or something. She would have known."

His big shoulders shook with silent sobs. "Oh, hell, Solly," Carson wheezed, "I'm sorry, I..."

"Guess you were right about that stuff." Solly closed the door and turned the sign to CLOSED. "Sure wish we'd listened to you. God, that boy was everything to me. Maybe I didn't tell him that enough." He shook his head. "Give everyone my regrets," said Solly, and went heavily home.

Carson Delaney stood in that spot, unmoving, for nearly half an hour.

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